The New Macho Mom

Accepting that you're looking at a Mount Fiji-sized change and giving yourself the time and space to plan for your new life and, more important, for your new sense of yourself makes a lot more sense than investing in a chic maternity wardrobe you hope will double as back-to-work wear.

By Ann Pleshette Murphy

All mothers should turn the telescope around and examine themselves as women who are continually developing along with their children, according to author Ann Pleshette Murphy. For many women, this concept means slowing down and taking time to embrace all aspects of pregnancy and motherhood.

Murphy, an award-winning parenting expert for ABC TV's Good Morning America and former editor in chief of Parents magazine, explores the ever-changing role of moms in her book The 7 Stages of Motherhood: Loving Your Life Without Losing Your Mind. In this piece, selected from the book's first chapter, "Stage 1 - Altered States: Pregnancy, Birth and the Fourth Trimester," Murphy chronicles a portion of her powerful journey from the unexpected death of her infant daughter to her subsequent pregnancy a year later, as well as thoughts from other women who mistakenly barrel through pregnancy.

When I found out I was pregnant the second time, my anxiety was understandably high, but once everything seemed normal, I hurtled ahead, adjusting my frenetic routine as little as possible. One morning I was running late to the office, and in my frantic sprint into the subway car I slipped, slamming my head against the edge of the door. By the time the train arrived at the next stop, I looked as though my unborn baby was about to spring Athena-like from my swelling forehead and several of my fellow straphangers were advising me to "get the hell off and put some ice on that thing."

I wound up at my parents' apartment a few blocks away, where my father, an obstetrician-gynecologist, ministered to my sore head and bruised ego.

"You have to slow down, darling," he admonished, placing an ice pack on my throbbing brow. "You're pregnant."

I realized later that he had stated the obvious because I was ignoring the obvious, racing through my days with a ferocious determination to prove I could still do it all, that nothing had changed. I'm sure I was running as fast as I could out of fear - fear that if I indulged in fantasies about this baby, in images of myself as a mom, of Steve as a dad - I might suffer the same loss and disappointment we had our first time. But even after an amniocentesis reassured us that everything was fine, I kept a tight rein on my fantasies and a tight schedule at work.

Although I'm sure there are women who adopt an 18th-century approach to their pregnancies, fainting onto chaises or taking to their beds, most of the moms I spoke to copped a decidedly macho attitude toward their nine months. Morning sickness was slightly embarrassing, but not paralyzing; fatigue was just something they'd work around; hemorrhoids, heartburn, varicose veins - not so bad. Even today's maternity wardrobes seem designed with a what's-the-big-deal-with-big attitude. Evidently, there's a lot of pressure on today's moms to treat pregnancy as a minor inconvenience and to barrel ahead with the confidence of Seabiscuit.

In many ways, this shift in perspective is positive; we've come a long way from the days when anything having to do with a woman's reproductive tract was considered X-rated and childbirth itself akin to a medical problem. In the 1700s, pregnant women were "confined" and expected to wear clothing that made burnooses look revealing. Before World War II pregnancy was rarely described as such. Women were "with child" or "in the family way" or "had a bun in the oven." And no 19th-century man in his right mind ever announced, "We're pregnant!"

Not only has the language of pregnancy changed in the past few decades, but the acceptance of pregnant mothers in the workplace, in the media, in bikinis has made it possible to strut your stuff and maintain the status quo for as long as you want. And it's wonderful if your pregnancy goes so smoothly that you can continue to work and play with Energizer Bunny stamina.

When Nick's beloved third-grade teacher became pregnant for the first time, her ebullience made Kathie Lee Gifford look lethargic. In addition to teaching full-time, she kept up a rigorous workout routine, practically jogging into the delivery room. And her happy-mom motor was clearly revved up the day I ran into her on the street. (She was running; I was not.)

"I feel really, really good," she said, panting as she jogged in place. "Only three weeks to go!"

I wished her luck and told her I would call her after the baby arrived. But as she trotted away I worried that she might be setting herself up for disappointment - not in terms of the experience of being a mom, but in entertaining the fantasy that even after the baby arrived she would just jog through life at the same self-determined pace.

There are plenty of evolutionary explanations as to why we carry our babies for nine long months, but I'm convinced that those last few weeks, when our bodily changes (and quite a few functions) seem totally out of control, are an apt metaphor for motherhood.

"If you think you look and feel completely different now," Mother Nature laughs, "then just wait!"

Long before you can't see your feet, you should be putting them up - literally and psychologically. As you'll learn, the shock of the new (baby, that is) can knock you sideways, especially if you've harbored the fantasy that becoming a mom represents a little bump in the road. Accepting that you're looking at a Mount Fiji-sized change and giving yourself the time and space to plan for your new life and, more important, for your new sense of yourself makes a lot more sense than investing in a chic maternity wardrobe you hope will double as back-to-work wear.

"I realize now that I just wasn't facing the fact that our lives would be totally different," Emily admitted a few months after her daughter was born. "It happened so quickly - we weren't really trying to conceive - I guess I didn't really admit to being pregnant. Like we didn't assemble the crib until about a week before Isabella was born. I kept putting it off; on one level, I just couldn't believe it was happening."

Few can believe it. How is it possible to fully imagine what and how you'll feel when the fluttering inside you is a miraculous fact of your life, when there's an actual baby in that room you're wallpapering with cute little ducks.

Shelly, a 26-year-old saleswoman who was expecting her first baby when I interviewed her, never really stopped to think about why she wanted to be a mom. In fact, as she admitted during the course of our conversation, the pregnancy had not been planned: "I'm still having a hard time believing that I'm going to be a mom. Even my coworkers were really surprised when I told them that I was pregnant, because I have a low tolerance for typical kid behavior. I work in retail, and when a baby has a tantrum in the store, basically I have to leave. I'm so frustrated by what I see parents doing or not doing in those situations. So I guess I'm worried that I might be just like them."

Actually, most of us assume we won't be just like them, that we'll manage to soothe an inconsolable infant or prevent a preschooler's supermarket meltdown or negotiate a successful peace treaty with an angry adolescent. The novelist Fay Weldon once commented that "the greatest advantage of not having children must be that you can go on believing that you are a nice person: once you have children, you realize how wars start."

Weldon's cynicism notwithstanding, there's no reason to believe you won't be a nice person once you're a mom; you just won't be the same person. Ever. And, for many of us, that sense of change, of evolution, is exactly why pregnancy is so fiercely exciting. As the psychologist Harriet Lerner aptly says, "Any woman who doesn't fear for her own future when she becomes a mother is sleepwalking or perhaps in a coma."

Reprinted from The 7 Stages of Motherhood: Loving Your Life Without Losing Your Mind, by Ann Pleshette Murphy; 2004 by Ann Pleshette Murphy Inc. Excerpted with permission by Anchor Books